If there's one thing everyone in the adult industry wants you to know, it's this: The internet is forever. And whether you only do one scene or 500, people will know. Your family will know. Your church will know. And, even if you're using a pseudonym, it won't be too long before that's figured out too. Should performing sex on film ruin your life? No. Will it? There's a pretty good chance it can.
Over the four days I spent at the Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE), I learned a great deal more than I expected about the pornographic film industry. I learned about why some big names got into the business (they love sex, the money's good, etc) and I talked to hopefuls who've done just a few movies and won't ever blow up in the same way a Jessica Drake or a Jenna Jameson has. There's no telling who will be here for the long haul, but every new performer's future will be affected by the adult films they've done and, likely, in a very negative way.
"People call me and ask me to take things down," Spike Goldberg, the CEO of Homegrown Video (one of the most successful amateur video companies in the business) tells me. "And I say, sure, of course, I'll take it down, but it's on the internet. It won't ever disappear." The silver lining to the internet, Spike says, is that your performances won't quickly be forgotten. But that's cold comfort for the performer who'd like nothing more than to forget.
Spike says that all good sex comes from good communication. Homegrown plans to release a video series teaching couples how to communicate while trying swinging relationships in the near future.
Why is it that we still treat porn performers with such derision? As a society, we've celebrated people who've done much worse than engage in intercourse on screen for the entertainment of the masses. Paula Deen, a woman who openly made racist remarks, is supported as she goes on her comeback tour. Rebecca Martinson, she of the famed cunt-punt email, has a job at BroBible and is writing forewords to books. Why do R. Kelly, Chris Brown and Sean Penn still have careers considering that what they've done is much worse than some consensual thrusting? Why should having sex publicly be seen as worse than barely-concealed abuse?
The simple reason may just be that sex still makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we have a belief that a person who's done double anal/double vaginal is somehow tainted, and no longer fit for anything else. Sex is feared—as a college instructor once told me—because it's one of the few things that society can't ever regulate or control. "It's why just the word porn is so provocative," says Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a renowned academic who's made porn the focus of her work. "Shoe porn, food porn. People want to click on these things. They want to see them because they're forbidden."
Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals
And if these things are forbidden, then the people doing them must be some kind of savages. They can't be people like us—fine, normal people who don't perform sexual acts for money (even though we may do more subjectively degrading things at our own jobs) or take pleasure from doing so. And that's why we mythologize and stigmatize the men, women and nonbinary people who star in adult. They must be sick, we tell ourselves; they must have had an awful childhood, they must have taken a wrong turn somewhere to end up on our screens and in our magazines, providing us with pleasure.
The question of feminism and objectification in the adult industry is incredibly complicated, but for now, let's focus on the fact that many performers want to be there. At the Adult Entertainment Expo, I asked some of them: Why is it still seen as wrong to have sex on film?
"It has a lot to do with a lack of sex education," Nina Hartley tells me. "We don't talk about sex and we don't use proper names for things and no one knows what sex is." Hartley has been both a porn actress and a sex educator for decades and she doesn't think that the roles are mutually exclusive. In the past few years, she's put out several videos which are both graphic and educational: teaching male and female viewers how to make sex more enjoyable while demonstrating on a willing partner. Wicked Studios has also released a line of such videos, Jessica Drake's Wicked Guide to Sex. The videos, which range from BDSM to anal play for men, are popular, and focused not only on sex but on communication.
"If you're using euphemisms all the time, no one's ever going to learn that saying the proper name is okay and they're going to feel ashamed. You don't have a euphemism for intestines or feet, why have one for penises and vaginas? It's ridiculous."
Hartley, who says that she made a rule for herself that she'd never do in porn what she wouldn't do in the bedroom, is passionate about this topic. Her thesis is that if we were all more comfortable with sex, and our bodies in general, we'd more easily be able to communicate our desires and treat sex as a regular part of life instead of something illicit and sleazy.
Nina Hartley is very passionate about sex education.
"What you see is the vulva, not the vagina," Hartley corrects me when I ask a question about anatomy, and I'm embarrassed, but not by the fact that we're talking about vaginas in front of hundreds of people while she wears a bra and panties. I'm embarrassed that I don't know basic anatomy. The AEE has really turned my world upside down. On the first day, I was embarrassed to even put my badge on lest people think that I was going to the convention, but by the third day I'm eating lunch next to a giant futuristic blowjob machine I'd been given by a PR person just for being me.I found myself talking with the other attendees and convention-goers with more confidence—not in a novel way, but in a way that suggests that we're all human beings who like looking at porn sometimes and that doesn't mean anything bad about us.
Hartley's views are shared by Tommy Pistol, star of countless adult films, host of this year's AVNs and the father of two children. While we drink a coke in the Hard Rock Hotel hallway—interrupted only by Farrah Abraham marching past us with a blow up doll of herself—he tells me that he doesn't get why violence is okay in mainstream media but that bodies are taboo. "It's like that Sin City poster that people thought was too sexy. Yeah, she's wearing lingerie, but she's also holding a smoking gun. She just killed a whole bunch of people!"
Farrah Abraham is really embracing her career in the adult industry and demanded I take a photo with her new doll on top of me. This is a turnaround for Abraham, who said that the first video of her and James Deen was a leak and that she wouldn't consider being a part of the adult entertainment business.
Pistol's children, aged three and six, don't know that he's in the adult entertainment industry, but he says that it's nothing that he'll be ashamed to tell them when they're old enough. He's heard horror stories about what happens when people try to conceal their pasts. According to him, there's nothing embarrassing about what he does. He stars in other types of movies, too. He's got a sketch comedy past, is in an upcoming SyFy film and even has a comedy/horror film about himself which he says is both funny and bloody. And, to be fair, his kids aren't watching videos of their dad being violently torn apart, either.
Tommy Pistol is grateful for every day he can work. Having held many different jobs (from butcher to janitor) he has no idea why people look down on porn stars. He's also the nicest person you could ever hope to meet.
I agree with Hartley and Pistol: if sex education were taken more seriously in western society we might be less Victorian in our sexual ideals. But I also know that, regardless of how well-intentioned and/or sex positive we want to be, there's something that doesn't let many people (including myself) not feel that porn is, well, at least a little icky. And that makes the people who make it icky as well, whether that's true or not.
So: should those people be accepted in careers outside of the industry they've chosen?
Some porn performers have successfully broken into the mainstream. James Deen is now a prominent figure in pop culture, Jenna Jameson is known more for being outrageous than her videos, and Fredrik Eklund of Million Dollar Listing isn't really haunted by his porn past (if the Bravo show is to be believed). But, like most success stories in the adult industry, these people are exceptions not rules. And, considering how worried I was that work outside of Jezebel would find out I was spending a week at a porn convention as a reporter, I can't imagine the stress the performers themselves (especially new ones) feel about the reception they get from people outside the industry. The stereotype is still strong: porn is unhealthy, and full of awful, broken people you wouldn't want to ever teach your children.
On the AVN's red carpet, I talk to Nickey Huntsman, a newcomer in a glittering gown. She's shy and somewhat reticent, excited about being on the red carpet but a little disappointed that no one's rushing to speak to her. I wish that I was as excited to speak to her as she is to be here, but no one has any idea who she is.
"What are your goals for the next year?" I ask Hunstman, who's not nominated herself but is happy that one of the films she did—Adventures of a Teddy Bear—is up for an award.
"To continue doing this and making better and better movies," she says.
"Do you plan to quit soon or is this a career thing?" I ask her.
"I'm going to keep doing it," she says. In my head, I feel sorry for her. She is beautiful, and has a great smile, but she's lacking in the charisma that appears to be even more important to star status than one's body and sexual prowess. And Huntsman has given up a lot to be here.
I ask her about the myth of porn being filled with people that are mentally unstable and she vehemently disagrees, shaking her auburn curls around so they fly. She's fine, she says. It's her family who isn't.
"Do they know?" I ask. And she tells me they do, and that they aren't happy. "My dad won't talk to me," she says. "My aunt steps out of any family picture I'm in. It hurts." Her boyfriend, a man she's been with for about two months, broke up with her right before the convention. He said he'd been fine with her being in porn, but decided that he wasn't okay with her going to Las Vegas, where she'd stand in a booth all day and be gawked at by other men. His ego, Huntsman says, might have just been too fragile. "That's okay, I guess he wasn't the right guy," she smiles at me. "I'd give this up if I really did meet the right guy."
Huntsman plans to make a name for herself—harder and harder these days, "considering that everyone with a webcam now considers herself a star," as Karen Summer says during our interview earlier that week. Huntsman plans to become big. But she doesn't have many plans for after that, and while the other stars I talk to say they do have plans, their tone often says otherwise.
Nickey Huntsman on the red carpet.
There are four main ways that I see for porn performers to go: Either continue doing films, move behind the camera, try to go into mainstream media or leave the business altogether. All of them are difficult.
There are so many people in the business that there might not be room for everyone to become a writer or director once they've finished performing. APAC suggests that performers start saving money or go to school when they're not shooting ("Talk to your agent or other performers to see what they're doing," APAC encourages). Some performers Like Jessica Drake (who had a reality show and works as a sex educator) and Chanel Preston (who became even more popular with her Naked With Chanel web series) work towards the mainstream. Preston will soon host a showtime special about the world's sexiest erotic films. James Deen has a popular YouTube show and may still be just as famous if he leaves adult film, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that straight males in porn may have a little less to fight once they leave the industry. Women (and gay performers) are stigmatized more. Being part of a minority is already difficult. Being a minority involved in a business that is seen universally as unbecoming? More doors shut than you can think.
"I don't think a woman should be judged for what she does with her body," Spike of Homegrown video tells me when we talk about getting out of the industry. "I pay my lawyer $500 an hour and that's a job. You pay a person to have sex on the screen, that's a job. Why shouldn't they be able to do something else?"
"Should they be able to teach?" I ask.
"Why not?" he says. "What does sex have to do with teaching?" It's a good question and one I wish I had the answer to. Learning years down the line that your teacher may have done adult films doesn't seem particularly traumatic to me. There is no good reason a former performer shouldn't be able to teach children, and yet, when Sasha Grey came in to read to a group of schoolkids—to read, not to explain what double penetration was—everyone was outraged, ignoring the fact that no first grader knows what Sasha Grey does and if they do, well, it's someone else's fault.
"What kind of parent would want their daughter to be in this industry?" asks Leslie, who's at the convention with her husband Jerome as part of Triple X Church. They're here to convert porn stars into Christians and spread a message of peace and love. This I can respect them for, in a way, because they at the very least aren't spewing hatred. They're okay with sex, they're okay with homosexuals, but they're not okay with objectification of the female form (that's for the husband and Jesus) or masturbation to dirty movies, because unless you're thinking of your significant other you're cheating and if you don't have a significant other you should go out and get one as Jesus intended.
Leslie doesn't quite trust any site called Jezebel or my bad posture, but both she and her husband are really nice.
Triple X Church has had success with former performers in the past (Stephanie Swift, who joined after surviving breast cancer is a notable member of their flock) and come to every adult industry convention to preach, hand out stickers and give t-shirts to converts or those they hope to convert. When I interview Joanna Angel, an earnest young-woman with weeps as she waits in line to give Angel a T-shirt with Jesus on it, hoping that this year Angel will finally see the light.
"She comes every year," Angel tells me. "Hasn't happened yet."
Joanna Angel accepts her umpteenth "Jesus Loves You" shirt.
But back to Leslie's question: I'll never be sex-positive enough to admit I'd hope that my child becomes a porn performer, but I also wouldn't disown them or be ashamed. The same way I won't be ashamed if my hypothetical child decides that what they want to do doesn't fit in with my own idea of success. I'd like to think I'd be supportive, because the world already looks at porn as a dirty job (when, again, it's just sex)—and that taints anyone, even if they only do it once, even if it's a mistake or a youthful indiscretion. (Or even, as in the case of Robert Marucci when it's the only way they can think of to help out their family. The then-18-year-old high school senior was suspended for doing something perfectly legal, if "distasteful," while those that bullied him weren't punished for their actions.)
The list of names goes on and on: Stacie Halas a middle school teacher fired for her porn past, Shawn Loftis who was fired then reinstated as an instructor after news of his gay porn career surfaced, and Julia Pink, who was a teacher for over 17 over 17 years and was fired after her porn career was discovered. Roman Ragazzi (nee Dror Barak) was fired from his job in the Israeli government and subsequently committed suicide; Kevin Hogan, made only three movies before trying to make it as a teacher and then getting fired; Tera Myers, who quit her teaching job when a student confronted her about one of her movies, to protect herself and her family. And these are just the names that come up first.
And then, of course, there's Belle Knox, who was bullied and harassed at Duke University for her career in porn. to Knox's bullies, doing porn was much more shameful than anything that might go on at a college, like a rape that was reported at Duke just this month. (Knox, to her credit, has curved the criticism and made her disproportionate shaming the center of an amount of professional success.)
It's clear that doing porn shouldn't ruin your life or hurt your career. It's also clear that, in 2015, it still often will do so.
If there's one way that one could enter the adult industry most safely (as a woman) and not have their "entire life ruined," it's to enter at an older age. Karen Lauren, who's been doing adult films for 11 years, entered the business at 49. Karen Summer, who was famous in the '80s at 25, left the business and built herself a career and a family with minimal recognition or problems. ("This was before the internet," she says.) Kelly Shibari, who's 43, didn't enter the industry until she was 34, had already had two careers and had discussed it with her mother.
"How'd she take it?" I ask Shibari.
"It was fine," she says. "She told me that if I were 18 she would have done much more to discourage me. But I was 34, I'd been to college, I'd done everything I was expected to do. I was an adult."
"It's not something she would have wished for, of course," Shibari says. "But she's proud of me."
"This couch is nice and squishy like me!" Shibari says when we talk. "That's my pull-quote"
And perhaps that's the most we can hope for right now: Support. Parents afraid of Sasha Grey's body aren't likely to come around to the fact that the people who make porn aren't perverts, but the climate, nevertheless, is changing. Conventions like the AEE (where the performers meet and educate their public) and awards shows like the AVNs being broadcast on television may be pushing adult film into the mainstream. And while doing porn is still altering the lives of performers, ruination may no longer be as strong a threat.
But it's still a strong possibility. So, while we take our sweet time evolving into people who don't really care what others do with their sexual organs, the best that porn performers can do is often just choose a fake name and hope that it never come back to bite them in the ass.
Images by Allen Corona; top photo via Getty